Rafting and documenting the mighty Clarence

 

Andy Belcher

Adventure photographer Andy Belcher takes us along on his latest wild ride — rafting Canterbury’s rolling Clarence River

I was recently invited by Ellis Emmett of Go Wild Productions to photograph his eight-day rafting trip from mountains to sea. This would cover almost the whole length of the grade-three Clarence River, a journey of nearly 200 kilometres and a descent of one kilometre. Because I have a blood condition called ‘myelodysplastic syndrome’ that causes anaemia and very low immunity, I did wonder if I should undertake such a huge physical challenge — but hey, it’s not every day you get offered an opportunity like this, so the answer had to be yes.

Our group was 20 strong and all our gear would be carried on four rafts. I selected my camera gear for the trip and packed it in two waterproof Pelican cases. We met at Ellis and Sanna’s awesome home, the Tree House in Cheviot, loaded rafts and gear, and set off towards the Acheron–Clarence confluence via Hanmer Springs. We were briefed, my boxes were strapped to the top of the gear pile for easy access, and we were soon gliding over crystal-clear waters. I had my little Panasonic Lumix GF2 in a Recsea housing for the wetter moments and my Nikon D3 for safer onshore photo opportunities.

The first two days were idyllic. The weather was fine and clear, the temperature was up to 26 degrees, and the river and scenery were picture-perfect. But New Zealand is renowned for conjuring up three seasons in one day and on day three it lived up to this. It started fine, then began to rain and finally the temperature dropped by about 18 degrees. The river level was rising, the water colour became brown and muddy, and the rapids faster and more intense. Loud instructions like “forward, back right” and “dig it in” saw my body rushing with adrenaline as we negotiated tricky parts of the mighty Clarence. To be part of the team at times like this I needed to paddle, so how the heck was I supposed to take photos? I secured the camera housing to the top of the gear pile with a karabiner so I could grab it quickly when the action was happening.

On day six, the sun graced us with its presence again as we negotiated a very steep-sided gorge. This was dramatic country, and we were treated to the most awesome glimpses of Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku. The 2885-metre snow-capped peak is one of the highest in Aotearoa, and it dominates the Inland Kaikoura Range. The Maori name ‘Tapuae-o-Uenuku’ translates as ‘footprint of the rainbow’. As a keen photographer, these stunning views excited me, and my total photo count by this stage was approaching 2000 (thank goodness I wasn’t shooting on film).

Early on day eight, some very strong wind gusts whistled up the gorge to provide a sandstorm in our campsite. I wanted a photo, but this was no place for cameras. The wind was so fierce, it carried away our tent with one of our party still inside it. We survived, paddled out into open farm country, and reached our final destination — the Pacific Ocean north of Kaikoura.

To describe this exciting trip as an epic adventure would be an understatement. It stirred in me many emotions — elation, trepidation, and an attitude of gratitude. It also stimulated my creativity and pushed me once again to new photo heights. But best of all, I made 20 new friends, some of whom were completely crazy (in a fun way). Despite their different ages and nationalities, they were all caring people, and not one single negative word was spoken for the whole eight days — my thanks go out to Ellis and Sanna for the incredible experience.